Leroy Jenkins 1932-2007

Epitome of the modern improvising violinist dies
CODA Issue 333

Violinist Leroy Jenkins, who died from lung cancer at 74, in February, was arguably the figure most responsible for his instrument’s unprecedented popularity in the advanced music world over the past four decades.

Although pioneers like Stuff Smith, Eddie South, Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli individually demonstrated that the violin could swing, and Jean-Luc Ponty showed it could (jazz) rock; it was Jenkins who confirmed the instrument’s profound musical versatility. He carved out a place for the fiddle first in unfettered Free Jazz of the 1960s and then with notated New music after the 1970s. He did this not only by his bravura playing, but also by composing works that mixed African-American sensibility with precise legitimate techniques.

Born in 1932 and brought up in Chicago’s South Side, he taught music in Alabama before returning to Chicago in 1964. Shortly afterwards he joined the nascent Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), along with such performer/theorists as reedist Anthony Braxton and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.

His unique improvising skill was first highlighted in the Creative Construction Company, a quartet which included Braxton; and his mixture of legit chops and Free Jazz musical imagery was showcased during the six-year existence, from 1971, of the Revolutionary Ensemble. A co-op trio with bassist Sirone and drummer Jerome Cooper, the group recorded important LPs for ESP and Horizon, and in 2004 reunited for And Now..., a CD on the Pi label.

Although he later worked in combos led by Cecil Taylor and his own Equal Interest trio, like Braxton he involved himself in academe, holding residencies and guest professorships at many universities; and like Abrams, composed for chamber, orchestra, dance, and theatre ensembles.

His 1989 opera/ballet, Mother of Three Sons, choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones and staged at the New York City Opera won a Bessie award. He also composed Three Willies, a multimedia opera, Fresh Faust a jazz-hip-hop opera and The Negro Burial Ground, a cantata. He collaborated with dancers and choreographers, recorded with New Music baritone Thomas Buckner, and had compositions performed by, among others, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, the Dessoff Choirs, and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

New concepts didn’t faze him either. When he was Artist in Residence at Manhattan’s Harvestworks Digital Art Center in 2005, for instance, Jenkins helped develop an interactive music-video instrument allowing musicians to use voice and acoustic instruments to manipulate multiple video tapes. Last year, he organized a World music quartet made up of improvisers playing the African kora, the Korean komungo and the Indian sarangi with himself on violin. Jenkins’ influence on such younger improvising violinists as Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang is confirmed at this year’s Vision Festival in New York when those two lead a 50-violin tribute to him.

During his lifetime Jenkins showed that by refusing to accept pre-determined roles as a jazzman, or because of his chosen instrument, he could ignore musical boundaries with impunity in favor of the music itself.

— Ken Waxman